What It Really Means When Celebrities Declare Themselves Feminists

In the chaotic circus of Donald Trump's America, even seemingly harmless cultural gestures can spark a politics-crazed Tweetstorm (see the alt-right tumult currently embroiling Vogue's subversive September cover). It's a debate over the responsibility of celebrities to help define our wider values that's been brewing since well-before last year's surreal election. But in a culture set aflame by Trump's viscerally anti-immigrant, anti-abortion rhetoric, the stakes seem suddenly much higher — especially for white, upper-middle class women, who've recently had a hard time showing up for intersectionality, not to mention a female candidate or two, when it counts the most.
Strong Opinions Loosely Held host Elisa Kreisinger sat down with "Stuff Mom Never Told You"'s Bridget Todd, and Buzzfeed features writer, Anne Helen Petersen, to discuss how Taylor Swift has chosen feminism as a vital thread of her lucrative brand. Catch the full episode below.
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"We have a responsibility, if we're going to be selling ourselves and our albums using this feminist branding, to try to get it right," Todd notes. "And I see, a lot of times, people trying to help Taylor Swift get it right, and rather than react in a way that seems open to it or wrestling with it, she really does fall back on this 'you're being mean to me, women should support other women, I'm a woman you're a woman, don't call me out, because that's not feminist.' And I don't think that's what feminism is. Feminism is not just, 'be nice to Taylor Swift.' It's something else. As feminists and as media consumers, I think it's important to be critical of all the media that we're consuming, it's important to ask these questions."
Swift's investment in women's empowerment may be evidence of a larger sea-change sweeping Hollywood — one that calls on celebrity brands to use their vast platforms to call out the sexual and racial oppression that's still very much part of our world. "She resisted the word 'feminist' for so long," says Peterson, author of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud. "In some ways, she mirrors the resistance of mainstream culture even to identify with feminism... But it's not enough to just say that. There's now an interrogation about what you actually do in your life, how do you interrogate your own privilege as a white feminist."
The real work of chipping away at inequality is a lot trickier than sporting a "The Future Is Female" T-shirt, or saturating your Instagram with glamorous shots of your powerhouse friends. Feminism is a pretty radical philosophy, and it takes clear ideological vision to stand up for it, even when it makes your followers uncomfortable. As Todd says, "You can't just vaguely be for all things that are positive and happy and sunshine in the world. Beyoncé has advocated for causes, made noise around things like police brutality, and for a while people reacted against it, but she took a stand that wasn't easy for her to do. Those are the things that make a celebrity, even if they're carefully polished, seem really authentic."
Swift deserves major recognition for her fearless testimony against radio personality David Mueller during their ongoing sexual battery case. By publicly telling her story, she's making visible the many, many sexual harassment survivors never given the chance to speak out against their abusers. This version of feminism might not be particularly trendy — but it is incredibly brave.
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